“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” (Psalm 116:15).
It is precious as a rainbow above green velvet cliffs.
It is precious as the full moon on that warm night when we gathered to cry for him and laughed remembering him.
It is as precious as a Hawaiian lei. We cut the thread, we scattered the flowers, and the thunder waves of the North Shore sent them back to us, pink petals on our toes.
But they did not send Shawn back. He was not theirs to return.
He is his Maker’s.
He is not ours, though we can still recall the exact sound of his laugh and the precise tone of his voice, as if he had only just called out to us from the other room.
Last January, I stood on a moonlit shore listening to a legendary Hawaiian surfer tell me what he had seen and heard from his beach-front house on January 14. The hem of my turquoise sundress trailed in the water like a mermaid’s bedraggled tail.
I am no mermaid. I know maple trees, and I love the green hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania. The water that tugged at my dress frightened me. But this man had known waves for decades, and he loved the wild waters of Oahu’s North Shore. He told story after story, while I began to see rightly and truly the place where I stood. I began to see these dangerous waters through the lens of this man’s great love for them.
He spoke of fire and a noise like thunder and of waves so high it was as if the ocean understood. The ocean offered up its own anguish before we knew to offer ours. Shawn and the eleven men flying with him that night did not die unseen in a swirl of chaos. They died in a known place, in a much-loved place; a door opened for them, and arms of welcome enfolded them, in one of the most astonishingly beautiful places on earth.
“If I could choose the spot where I would die and be buried, I would choose these waves right here,” the man told me.
I have thought many times since our conversation of an Old Testament tale:
“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11).
And Elisha, who loved him, went on walking, alone, as the reflection of heavenly fire faded from his eyes, and the skies returned to their ordinary, silent gray.
There was no door in the sky for Elisha, and there is no door for us, as yet.
The fire has faded, and the wind has stilled. One year later, rainbows are harder to come by.
And yet, when I slow my usual busyness, when I pause and reflect, I realize that the hems of our clothing still trail through salty water. The turtle-dotted waves of the North Shore offered a kind of baptism, and we have not shaken that water off yet.
God willing, we never will.
This is living water. It poured from the cross when an innocent man, and the maker of us all, died to set things right. Shawn chose every day to hide his life in the life of the innocent One who defeated death, and so his death shares in the power of Christ’s own. Losing Shawn has left us shocked and grieving, yes, but the loss has also unleashed rivers of living water.
And even when we cry we trail streams of rainbow glory.
Shawn Campbell’s legacy.
The weather here in our corner of Pennsylvania is soggy rather than snowy, but our stack of Christmas books is helping to set the mood.
If you’re looking to start your own collection, or maybe writing a list for the library, here are a few of our favorites.
(this post contains affiliate links)
Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl Buck is a beautiful picture-book edition of a classic.
Buck, who won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer, originally published this story in 1955. It’s a very simple story of an adolescent boy’s gift to his hardworking, farmer father on Christmas Day. Even my young children are inspired by this story, but it’s a tale that gets better and means more the older you are.
Little One, We Knew You’d Come by Sally Lloyd-Jones appears to be out of print, but it is really worth seeking out. This one may be my favorite Christmas book.
The illustrations tell a straightforward story about the birth of Christ (though their beauty is anything but typical or generic), but it’s the sweetness and lyricism of the text that makes this story something bigger and more beautiful than it first appears to be.
Little one, we knew you’d come. We hoped. We dreamed. We watched for you.
It can be hard for us to fully grasp the longing of creation for Christ or even to understand what it means to long for our King’s return during this Advent season, but many of us know what it is to long for a baby. The words of this book tell that story so many of us know intimately, that story of “our miracle child, our dreams come true.”
This book makes the perfect gift for new moms, or anyone familiar with the special love we have for a long-anticipated child, no matter the time of year.
This Advent the kids and I are reading a new book at bedtime. It’s The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder, the philosopher and writer of Sophie’s World (a novel I remember loving in college).
Translated from the Norwegian, this is a strange but wonderful tale within a tale about a magic Advent calendar and an odd pilgrimage back through history to the Bethlehem of Christ’s birth. The story is divided up according to the twenty-four windows of an Advent calendar so it’s ideal for nightly reading.
My paperback copy is high quality and lovely to look at, but there are quite a few typos and a handful of places where the translation seems a little awkward. Still, as a read-aloud capable of keeping the attention of a six, nine, and twelve-year-old at Christmastime, it seems just about perfect.
It isn’t a devotional book, and yet Gaarder’s philosophical observations (quite a few spoken by the “wise man” Caspar) have given even me a few mysteries to ponder. We haven’t finished it yet, so I can’t vouch for where the whole narrative is heading, but I do know we are headed to Bethlehem. I’m eager to discover what Gaarder has in store for us there.
If you only have time for a short Advent read this morning, may I suggest my latest post at Grace Table? Titled “The Irrational Hospitality of Advent,” you can find it right here.
Peace be with you, friends.
I shared a special photograph on facebook this week.
My son, a small smile, and a slice of warm, wheat bread.
After nine years with no bread or pizza crust, no pasta or ice cream cones, our boy successfully completed a food challenge for wheat at the children’s hospital.
No more allergy.
I started baking bread the very next day.
There are other allergies. More severe allergies. There will be more food challenges. But this is something new. Something wonderful.
I once wrote about my son and his allergies for the website Deeper Story. It’s one of my favorite things.
I’m sharing it again, and on my own website, because the truth I was trying to discover then feels even more important now as we navigate this change.
We haven’t arrived at the end of this story, but we have begun a new chapter.
The full story remains complicated. A little bit beyond my grasp. I am comforted to remember that the very best stories are never the easy ones. Not the easy ones to tell. Not the easy ones to hear. Certainly not the easy ones to live.
Here is that old, still continuing, story.
“Finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.”
– Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
I know two ways to tell this story.
The first way follows a trail of brokenness. Like a mountain path marked by rubble.
I don’t like to tell it this way. It feels so negative, even somehow un-Christian. But I do sometimes tell it like this, especially when you ask me directly about my son’s food allergies.
The twin themes of this story are loss and fear.
This is the story of eight years with no bread or pizza. No ice cream or cheese. No peanut butter-and-jelly, no granola bars. No yogurt. No mac-and-cheese or fish fingers or chicken nuggets. No birthday cake at the parties of his friends.
This is a story about epi-pens and calls to 911 and too many visits to the E.R.
I might leave out the details of that one mother-son date when I forgot the epi-pen. No happy ending (in this case, a stranger with a pediatric epi-pen in her purse) can erase the horror of five minutes spent listening to death rattle in your little boy’s throat and knowing it is entirely your fault.
The central episode of this first story might be the year my son spent eating lunch alone at a table on the stage of the school cafeteria. The only kid in the “nut-free” zone.
The second version of the story is more positive. You might call it pie-in-the-sky. Or, possibly, head-in-the-sand.
I’m not sure the story told this way is any closer to the truth, but it is easier to tell and easier to hear.
Highlights of this story include the gluten-free bakery only ten minutes from our small Pennsylvania town. They make pizza crusts and hamburger buns and even cupcakes without wheat or dairy or nuts. The pizza crusts are a little sad, but I will leave that part out.
This second story will make your mouth water. I will tell you about our special fried chicken and meatballs made without bread crumbs. I will tell you about a little concoction we call “pizza rice.” I will tell you how much my son adores his seaweed snacks. I will tempt you with my recipe for pumpkin bars.
Neither story gets it right. Neither one touches the heart of our experience these eight years. The first points out all that is missing. All that is twisted and wrong. The second tries to distract you from the brokenness with a pile of deliciousness.
Both versions leave me hungry for the truth.
I think the true story follows a third way. As so many of the best stories do.
I’ve been feeling out the contours of this other way for years, as if searching for a secret place. The place where loss is still loss but is also, somehow, gain. The place where grief remains grief but where it is also the color of joy.
How do you tell a story built on contradictions?
I can’t send my son to summer camp, but my son lacks no good thing.
I pray every day that my son will be healed, but I believe the answer I’ve long been given: he is already healed.
Our family table is ringed round with fear and loss. Death and sickness. We never sit down to eat without noticing those shadows at our feet. And yet the food we eat at this table is good. Each bite tastes like a gift.
How can I ever account for the wonder of a table prepared in the presence of my enemies?
When my son tells the story of his old school, he tells it like this:
“Mom, remember when I ate lunch on the stage in the cafeteria?”
“Yes,” I say. “How could I forget.”
“I was all by myself. It was like eating on top of a mountain! It was so quiet there.”
Watching him tell his story, I see a far-off gaze. I see something around his mouth. It is like the memory of a smile.
As if he’s glimpsed some other, hidden world. Some truer place.
In Alaska, there are many ways to die.
You can die in the air: bush plane, float plane, an airliner in wind and fog. You can die in the sea: barge, skiff, a ferry plunging in the trough. (If you are a sea lion, you can die in the jaws of an orca halfway between your rock and the waves. I have a picture of blood and frenzied sea lions if you are the sort who needs proof.)
You can also die with your feet planted firmly on the ground: bear, cliff, swiftly-shifting weather.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. The shadows are longer. Death lurks out in the open here.
When you become a mother, you count all the ways there are to die: babies sleep but do not wake, daughters fall on the stairs, sons are diagnosed and named incurable.
Later, the ways are counted for you, but they are not the deaths you have already met in your imagination.
One day, you do not recognize how much your boy struggles to breathe, but the pediatrician does. She calls an ambulance from the exam room.
Another day, you forget your child’s epi-pen. Thank God, that stranger in the corner of the shop had one in her purse. You learn, to your sorrow, that death is folded within each moment.
Silent. Hidden. Utterly inseparable from love.
In Alaska, there are so many ways to live.
You live in the air: bush planes and float planes fly low. You soar like an eagle, skim mountaintops, explore islands empty except of bears.
You live on the water: the taste of salt spray on your lips, a diving fin whale almost at your fingertips, sea otters like floating teddy bears.
You live on the land: black-tailed deer who are not afraid of you, tide pools filled with sun stars and blood stars and the deep breathing of anemones.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. It is a dazzle in your eyes all day long.
Of what consequence is death when the air is like glittering glass?
If you are a writer, you are often alone. You retreat from family and friends seeking the quiet you need to write.
But one day you step on an airliner. One day you step on a bush plane. One day you wade through the water and heave yourself into a skiff. One day you taste salt spray all the way to Harvester, an island like a boulder tossed across the sea.
You journey to the edge of the world, and you discover you are not alone. The world is as full with stories and with storytellers as it is full with the glory of God.
The stories you find on Harvester Island are intimate with death.
There is the story of the old man and the young boy. They vanished on the water, leaving behind only a dog in a skiff and so many broken hearts.
There is the story of the unhappy wife standing on the edge of the island rock with a small suitcase in her fist. She has arrived at the end of her road. She is alive, but she has already died.
There are so many ways to die, but in Alaska, you learn what is true in every place on earth: there is only one way to live.
The only way to live is to die.
The only way to live is to arrive at the end of yourself and then to keep going (you can do this via bush plane, you can do this via motherhood or marriage or any great attempt at love).
Love is what remains, at the end of yourself, at the end of every beautiful story, at the end of every terrible one, too.
Love is our home. It is the place where death is only a fading legend. A tale we will tell again and again until, like glass smoothed and polished by the waves, it loses every sharp edge.
One day, we will let that old story go; we will drop it there, on the black gravel of the beach. For we have traveled 10,000 years, and we are ready for new stories.
Written in the airport in Anchorage, Alaska. With love for all the writers who traveled to that boulder in the sea. I am glad to have met you, there on that line between rock and water, life and death, stranger and friend.
It is called the Golden Hour or, sometimes, the Magic Hour. Photographers and filmmakers revere it.
It rarely, if ever, lasts an hour. Usually it is less, though in the far north in deep winter, it might last all day. It is that period just after sunrise, or, more usually, just before sunset when the light is warm and soft and shadows are long and gentle.
During our winters, golden hour is something I glimpse from a window in mid-afternoon. A sight that causes me to pause. For a moment.
Now that it is spring, golden hour is more like a place. We might wander in and out of the house all day, but as sunset nears a new door opens. It no longer matters what indoor tasks are pressing on us (homework, dinner prep, a pile of laundry on the dining-room table). When that door opens we will stay outside until the door swings shut and every last, golden drop vanishes.
This week, in this magic evening place, I have seen a two-year-old girl, her hair the same color as the light, kneel in a sea of violets. She used a stick to stir a basket overflowing with dandelions. She was so focused on her fluffy, yellow stew that she never saw the pink magnolia petals drifting behind her back. She never noticed the bright green buds from the maple tree dusting her shoulders.
This week, in the golden place, I have seen a brother and sister roll their bodies down a green hill, over and over again. My own shadow was so long, reaching toward them, it seemed as if I could wrap shadow arms around them while they rolled. I could use shadow hands to help them back onto their feet.
In the golden hour, all kinds of burdens are lifted. Dinner and homework and laundry matter so much less. Even the daily burden of gravity seems to lift. In this light, we walk somewhere between the earth and the sky, belonging equally to both. When the two-year-old cries, “I catch the moon!” I believe her.
Here is what I have seen in the golden hour: my children are beautiful, the earth is gentle, there is no reason, ever, to be afraid.
Here is why I hesitate to share what I have seen: Baltimore burns, another young black man is dead, wars rage, a marriage is ending, young parents grieve a baby’s diagnosis, a friend has landed back in the hospital.
I am strongly tempted to keep the vision of golden hour a secret. I know that my world is not the whole world. Do I tempt you toward jealousy if I say that this week my life, between the hours of six and eight, is almost unbearably beautiful?
Yet if I am silent then some essential part of the story goes missing.
CNN and NPR tell their stories, and we feel duty-bound to hear them. What about the good news? What about those dispatches from the golden hours?
The door to that place opens and closes according to a will that is not ours. Some evenings bring clouds and rain, and we are given only darkness.
I cannot even begin to guess why this is so.
But I hope that when the clouds move in, and darkness once again surrounds me, that you – yes, you – will have the courage to share your golden visions.
That I might know more of the story and take heart.
That I might glimpse the ending of it all and have hope.
Autumn is announced by the seedling trees. The baby trees. They are the first to abandon their green in favor of orange or red or yellow.
Driving these country roads, they are like lit matches. Small, flickering flames against the general greens and faded browns of early autumn.
They are children embracing the arrival of something new. They wear their faith like Joseph’s multi-colored coat, and we cannot look away. Soon, even the staid elders will shake off their summer sleep.
Until they blaze.
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
I observed the brilliant, baby trees, and I immediately thought of Jesus’s words. I imagined I could write out the connection. That I could find some moral in what I had seen.
But trees are living things. They are not convenient object lessons.
Maybe they could be parables. Easy to decode but almost impossible to comprehend. Truth so tall and deep, it avoids our grasp, seeking instead the deep well of our hearts.
I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world. (Matthew 13:34)
Yesterday, I saw a strange sight. Walking to shut up the chickens for the night, I saw a line of geese heading southeast. They were black silhouettes against the slate gray backdrop of the sky.
I stood perfectly still watching them, captured by some mystery that wasn’t immediately apparent. Then it came to me in two parts.
First, the geese traveled in a single diagonal line, but there was only emptiness where the other half of the V should have been. Was this a picture of loss and grief? Or only the notice of job vacancies in the sky?
Second, they were quiet. I could hear nothing. No flap of wings, no honking calls.
Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13)
I read my Bible, and I watch the trees. I stop to consider the birds. I am learning to collect hidden things. To store them up for the winter day of my need.
And on that day I will know exactly what it means to be a young tree wearing a blaze of color.
I will understand just how much depends upon chasing the far horizon in complete silence.